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An analysis of Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault
and their present day relevance
By Louise Warriar, Andrew Roberts and Jennifer Lewis


Moderated surveillance is a feature of modern government. Modern because it relates to the development of the bureaucratic state and industrial (as distinct from agricultural) economies - Moderated because the camera watching the streets is limited by laws (unlike the total surveillance described by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four) - Government by surveillance because the subject is controlled by the knowledge that the subject is watched.

Technology makes surveillance possible, but our social theory provides the framework that makes it meaningful and limits it.

To look at this social theory, we will first analyse the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), then look at the analysis of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), and proceed, in the light of this, to discuss surveillance by closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras.


Bentham is a utilitarian theorist, believing human beings are intrinsically bound to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and that "good" and "bad" are defined by what is pleasurable and painful:

"Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we should do" (Bentham 1789 par. 1.1)

If we believe that for every action of ours there will be a reaction from others, our prevailing principle will be not to act in any way which results in a negative or detrimental reaction from others towards us.

Applying this principle to crime, we could say that one would not commit an offence likely to mean one suffered more pain for committing the act, than the possible pleasure one might derive from it.

To secure desirable behaviour, and to deter undesirable, society might respond to this theory by imposing the most stringent set of laws and punishments possible. But this would not be a Benthamite solution. The object of legislation, according to Bentham, should be to secure the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. The pain of punishment should, therefore, be proportional to the happiness that it secured.

As a part of his vision of rational social control, Bentham devised an architectural device he called the Panopticon, which is Greek for "all-seeing". The Panopticon was a universal institution based on the design for a Russian factory that minimised the number of supervisors required, and proposed by Bentham for the design of prisons, workhouses, mental asylums and schools. He, himself, attempted to construct a prison to this design at Millbank in London

The underlying principle of Panopticon order is the total and constant surveillance of inmates, workers, patients or pupils. But Bentham believed this approach could be successfully adopted in any environment which involved some level of supervision.

Bentham's design had a central watch tower encased in glass and furnished with wooden blinds, which would be surrounded by a series of cells or rooms. The idea was that the guard or overseer in the watch tower would be able to monitor the every movement of the inhabitants of the cells, all of the time, hence the 'all-seeing'.

A key to the effectiveness of the system is uncertainty. The design ensures that the people watched cannot see their observers. They have no way to find out if they are being watched at any given time, but they know that it is the constant possibility. They have no area of privacy. Even if no one is watching, they do not know it.

The psychological objective of such a system was that the subjects of surveillance would believe that their only logical option was to conform. Thus each individual would become their own overseer. The external illusion of an all-seeing eye would become an inner reality of self-policing.

If we link this to the 'pleasure-pain' principle, we see that the pain has become, to a large extent, self-generated. The subject suffers a torment of anxiety that his or her crime will be seen. Non-conformity means inner pain, there is no profit to be gained from deviancy, and the path of pleasure is the psychological security of knowing that you have done nothing censurable.

We see here the difference between the utilitarian theory of human behaviour, dominant in Britain and America, and the continental theories of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Durkheim that are the main alternative to utilitarian theory in European culture. The basis of the theories deriving from Rousseau is that human beings have a will to act in the interest of society: that the "general will" is our will as much as our individual (selfish) "particular will". In fact, more than individual (selfish) will, because it is the general will within us that makes us human. If the general will within us was not the stronger, Hegel argued, we would require a policeman on every corner. The Benthamite scheme highlights the truth of Hegel's criticism, by requiring the police officer to be stationed in every mind.


Michel Foucault has taken Bentham's panopiticon is an "ideal" or "architectural figure" of power in modern society. He argues that it is not just a model for institutions, but something whose principles are the principles of power in society at large:

"The Panopticon... must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men... Bentham presents it as a particular institution, closed in upon itself... But the Panopticon ... is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system; it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use." (page 205)
His description of the Panopticon is, therefore, a description of the "architectural figure" of "all the mechanisms of power which ... are disposed around the abnormal individual, to brand him and to alter him":
"We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions _ to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide - it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap."


Bentham believed that the principles of the Panopticon could be applied within any sphere requiring some level of regulation, and, consciously or not, we find the principles in modern day forms of surveillance, such as closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Although technologically far superior to surveillance in Bentham's time, the principle factors are largely unchanged. The same objective remains prevalent today, to deter people from offending through the constant threat of surveillance and the repercussions of being caught on camera.

The architecture of modern shopping malls can be understood as Panopticism. The shopping mall is a large open space with plenty of light, and is designed in such a way to promote excellent visibility and safety. Usually there are no small walkways. Floors are constructed on a gallery design, so that anyone can view those below without having to change floors.

Exposed elevators are often encased in glass. A prime example of the Panoptic eye, as incidents in elevators would otherwise remain undetected for some time due to the lack of visibility.

Consumer Panopticism is also part of modern shopping mall design - Although the consumers may not be reflectively conscious of their participation. Consumer Panopticism is the way in which shoppers survey and police one another. Not only are the cameras and security staff watching you, the shoppers also follow suit. This reaction is one that has become internalised as an intrinsic part of our society.


Bentham, J. 1789 An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

Foucault, M. 1977 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Essay copyright Louise Warriar and others December 2002 onwards

This is a page in the making. Starting with parts of Louise Warriar's criminology dissertation, we will add ideas from other students of Social Science History at Middlesex University, and re-draft the essay in the light of discussions about the problems of interpreting the two authors and applying their work to the present.

Suggested bibliography entry:

Warriar, Louise (and others) 2002- Surveillance - An analysis of Jeremy Bentham Michel Foucault and their present day relevance

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